Just out of high school, Sean Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) has left behind his San Diego home and single mother (Alicia Silverstone) under the guise of a film production internship. In actuality, he has struck up an online friendship with porn producer Stephen (Christian Slater), the one-man-band mogul behind Cobra Video, and come to shoot a video for him under the name Brent Corrigan. The year is 2006 and, with YouTube still in its infancy, paid internet porn remains a wildly lucrative business. When Brent proves to be a big hit, he agrees to stay on as one of Stephen's star attractions, living with him at his unsuspecting house in the suburbs. After the luster fades and Sean tries to break his contract, it paves the way for blackmail, criminal accusations, and finally far worse once desperate, in-debt porn producer-actor Joe (James Franco) and his top performer/boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen) enter the picture.
Based on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway's true crime book "Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice," "King Cobra" is a riveting behind-the-scenes glimpse at the largely homegrown web-sex industry of the early twenty-first century before unraveling into something altogether darker and more disturbing. Writer-director Justin Kelly has made a tight, frightening, luridly sexy drama, one which follows two sets of charactersSean/Brent and Stephen, and Joe and Harlowas fate prepares for their explosive paths to collide. Even if details and occasional names have been altered from the real-life story on which it is based, this telling nonetheless revs with observant, unbiased authenticity and an ongoing aura of portent over where things are headed.
Garrett Clayton (a dead ringer for Zac Efron who, not surprisingly, played Link Larkin in 2016's "Hairspray Live!") is striking as the naïve yet manipulative Sean Lockhart/Brent Corrigan, his youthful charisma and attractiveness making it easy to understand why Stephen (and his thousands of viewers) are instantly taken with him. Christian Slater (2013's "Stranded
") is excellent in one of his best recent film roles, bringing empathy, savviness and repression to his middle-aged, one-foot-in-the-closet producer Stephen. James Franco (2016's "Goat
") and Keegan Allen (TV's "Pretty Little Liars") sizzle in their scenes as Joe and Harlow, living beyond their means and willing to do whatever necessary to keep afloat. In key supporting turns, Alicia Silverstone (2013's "Ass Backwards
") affectingly expresses both maternal love and an understandable sense of confusion and shame as Sean's mother Janette, and Molly Ringwald (2015's "Jem and the Holograms") is largely underused as Stephen's sister Amy.
Accompanied by composer Tim Kvasnosky's pulsing score, "King Cobra" adeptly depicts the equal parts allure and tragedy possible within a sometimes fun, often cutthroat business centered around one goal: getting off its libidinous customers. Director Justin Kelly takes an economical approach to his storytelling, shedding an intimate light on disparate human portraits of passion, greed, madness, regret and redemption. The film understands the moral gray area of their actions and stays within it. None of the players are wholly innocent or irredeemably guilty, and some are capable of doing especially bad thingsthings they can never take back. "King Cobra" is compelling and erotic, provocative and foreboding, catching the eye and, ultimately, in one's throat.